Moral Foundations Underpin Political Animosity

Politics is the communal narrative directed by hidden analogies and symbols, refereed less by the men and women who exercise their will, and more by the primacy of the foundations that impregnate their ideologies. "People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives," Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU's Stern School of Business, wrote in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. "Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds."

It’s a feature, a heuristic borne of our evolutionary psychology, typified by cooperation and conflict. Political animosity exists between the left and the right because liberals and conservatives utilize divergent moral foundations: the former favors care and fairness, while the latter tends toward the cohesive qualities of loyalty, authority and purity.

At bottom, both liberals and conservatives aim to protect society from social disorder. But the left and the right prioritize different moral foundations. In turn, the specific moral foundations utilized by the left and right fuel their moral narratives and policy solutions along distinctly liberal or conservative lines because the mind is, as Haidt wrote, "a story processor, not a logic processor."

Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory proposes that morality is an innate, yet malleable, perspectival condition. That is, moral behavior is a matter of nature and nurture. We don't enter the world as blank slates. Instead, our brains are organized in advance to learn, for example, language, or, as Haidt argues, moral behavior.

So newborns, whether they're born to liberal or conservative families, all begin as morally agreeable across the pentagonal spectrum. But while nature provides the neural structure, culture fertilizes the soil. In time, moral inertia creates a liberal or conservative political worldview.

Granted, the degree to which individual temperament is dictated by, or is a combination of, genes and environment, is debatable. But consider the stereotype that, in this case, corresponds to reality: liberals tend toward novelty while conservatives tend toward familiarity. Then, the moral divergence that underpins the political dichotomies between the left and right seem sensible, predictable.

But the fundamental issue concerns the tribal psychology at play. Because once liberals or conservatives demonize one another, their respective insights go unacknowledged. Liberals recognize that if too much emphasis is afforded to authority, loyalty or purity, then maligned groups suffer exclusion - women, ethnic or gender minorities are rejected groups. Liberals understand that tradition limits change.

Conservatives, however, understand a fact of societies: they tend toward social entropy. Disorder is consequence of repudiation - of dismissing the authority of the institutions that govern society, of recanting the sanctity of loyalty and purity.

The aggravated political atmosphere illustrates the severity of our disengagement. It's a transgression on reality, on truth, or at least an honest attempt to mitigate the political caricatures that propagates our distrust in each other, that both liberals and conservatives are guilty of committing. Because members on either side of the political continuum are concerned about societal well-being, the necessity to venture beyond the allegorical cave is dire. Our future, if is to be less polarized, demands it.